The Business of American Democracy

Solicited by the Business History Conference (BHC). Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Saturday, April 17, 2021, 3:00 PM - 3:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Politics; Race


This session examines how corporations and varied business interests forged new alliances and new institutions to advance democratic freedoms and make government and financial institutions more responsive to ordinary citizens. Such efforts, as these papers show, produced mixed results, sometimes thwarting democratic objectives and sometimes advancing them. 

Papers Presented

“Lately the Fashion Around Us”: The Hidden Popularity of People’s Banks in the Age of Jacksonian Democracy

Drawn from my dissertation research on the Panic of 1819, this paper argues that the contentious debate over so-called “People’s Banks” in many Southern legislatures during the early nineteenth century played a vital but largely forgotten role in the intertwined processes of slavery expansion and economic democratization. The first incorporated banks in the South were dominated by large slaveholders and merchants from wealthy plantation districts, and such banks primarily served the commercial interests of their privileged investors. The Panic of 1819 exposed this traditional Hamiltonian system of corporate finance to charges of fiscal malfeasance, economic elitism and political corruption, with one Southern governor predicting the imminent rise of “a government of corporations instead of a government of the people.” Although historians have long contended that grassroots anti-bank outrage was crucial to the political ascent of Andrew Jackson and the new Democratic Party, many of Jackson’s strongest supporters were not in fact anti-bank but proponents of popularly governed state-owned banks, or People’s Banks. Although some emerged as vehicles for immediate relief during the Panic of 1819, as in Kentucky and Tennessee, those in Alabama and Georgia were not founded until years later—while in North Carolina, a proposed People’s Bank was hotly contested for over a decade but never established. People’s Banks promised democratic sovereignty over the money supply, especially greater access to financial credit for farmers and small slaveholders. Yet their public ownership presaged their political and financial demise, even as they encouraged a more widely acceptable pattern of slave-based capitalist development in the Old South.

Presented By
Robert Shepard Richard, The Shipley School

Responsible Government and Effective Democracy: Corporate Lessons for Public Governance in Early Twentieth-Century America

This paper examines efforts by leaders of the Northeastern business community during the 1910s and 1920s to remake the federal government in the image of a large, vertically integrated, national-scale corporation. As American society weathered a series of crises, a group of leading corporate attorneys and financiers found the administrative capacity of the national government lacking when compared to that of the modern industrial corporation. So, in the years before and after World War One, these elite reformers sought to endow the presidency with powers akin to those wielded by corporate executives, and they sought to place Congress in an oversight role similar to that of a corporate board of directors. To achieve this, they sought to enact proposals such as budget reform and executive reorganization. Scholars have tended to view these reforms as anti-democratic, but these elite reformers hoped that their program would empower the national government to enact national policies to solve national problems. And they hoped that, by delineating responsibility for carrying out those polices, voters would be better able to discern who was responsible for a given policy’s success or failure. This, the reformers hoped, would improve the functioning of American democracy. By the 1920s, this moderate agenda had been embraced by the Northeastern business community and by the national leaders of both parties, but it was ultimately defeated by populists from the South and West who were distrustful of corporate elites and preferred to maintain local control of public administration.

Presented By
Jesse T. Tarbert, Independent scholar

Mandela and Coke: How a U.S. Company Courted a Black South African Freedom Fighter

This paper tells the story of how one of the world’s most well-known companies, The Coca-Cola Company, courted South African freedom fighter and later president, Nelson Mandela. This story is all the more remarkable considering that at the time Coca-Cola faced heavy criticism from anti-apartheid activists protesting the company’s continued sale of its products in South Africa in spite of calls for divestment, and Nelson Mandela was still widely considered to be a communist and on the U.S. terrorist watch list. More than a case of strange bedfellows, the history of Coke’s partnership with Mandela is illustrative of how a handful of American corporations re-branded themselves amid South Africa’s democratic transition during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the face of repeated calls for sanctions and divestment against South Africa, U.S. corporations like Coke gradually relinquished their previous stance that South African Apartheid was a “domestic” matter, better left to the South African government and people to handle. Instead, with the help of black American executives like Coca-Cola VP Carl Ware and others, they began to court black South African businesspeople and political activists through offering financial and other forms of assistance. More than illuminating U.S. business engagement in South Africa’s democratic transition, this paper shows how corporations like Coca-Cola worked to define citizenship in post-Apartheid South Africa around the idea of black entrepreneurship and black economic empowerment.

Presented By
Jessica Ann Levy, Purchase College, SUNY

Session Participants

Chair: Stephen A. Mihm, University of Georgia

Presenter: Jessica Ann Levy, Purchase College, SUNY

Presenter: Robert Shepard Richard, The Shipley School

Commentator: David B. Sicilia, history of capitalism; financial history; history of technology

Presenter: Jesse T. Tarbert, Independent scholar